The Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands

Four days before heading to the Galápagos our third camera died on us. Now we are down to Cindy’s iPhone for photos, however, we were fortunate to have had a couple of our friendly fellow passengers share some of theirs.

The Galápagos flightless cormorant

Flightless cormorant

The Giant Galapagos Turtle can weigh over 800 pounds and live well beyond 100 years old in the wild

The Giant Galapagos Turtle can weigh over 800 pounds and live well beyond 100 years old in the wild

The Galápagos was not on our original itinerary so it gave us the option of booking a last-minute cruise. We just had to figure out how we’d go about getting one. The least expensive way would be to go directly to the Galápagos and buy our tickets there. Then the problem would be to wait an indeterminate amount of time on the islands for an appropriate spot to open up. Not knowing how long it would take, we elected to shop travel agents in Quito thereby allowing us to spend our ‘wait time’ where we would have more things to see and do. Even though it was low season, there were very few openings and our choices were very limited. We later learned that there was an article recently published in some well-read periodical about how it was a great time to get last-minute deals to the Galápagos. A friend who we met in school in Medellin was not so lucky. He went directly to the Galápagos and booked an amazing last-minute deal which was subsequently cancelled (due to over booking?) and he never got to cruise the islands.

A Galápagos sea-lion in its underwater habitat

A sea-lion in its underwater habitat

We signed up for an 8-day cruise on a 16-passenger motor yacht called the Yolita II. It was the diametric opposite of our experience on the Blue Cruise in Turkey, where we were the ‘old ones’. This time, there were 2-3 people in the 20’s or 30’s and the rest of the passengers were all about our age.

We saw many Galápagos Hawks

We saw a lot of Galápagos hawks

One of the amazing things about the Galápagos Islands is the general lack of fear the wildlife has around human activity. With a few exceptions, it was normal to get up close and personal with almost any creature.

A male Yellow Warbler

A male Yellow Warbler

Aside from guided wildlife walks, we snorkeled every day coming within feet of many creatures including sea-lion moms suckling their young, penguins and white tip reef sharks. Once, while snorkeling with penguins ‘flying’ back and forth, we saw a huge splash right in front of us. It was a blue footed boobie diving for food. Amazing!

A blue footed boobie

A blue footed boobie

A pair of masked boobies.

Masked boobies.

I like boobies!

The seas were extremely rough for the first few days. When we motored at those times, the boat rocked and rolled so much, I felt my body lifting off the bed. Sea-sickness was common and made for a lot of conversation among the passengers. I was fortunate and never had a problem. In fact, the motion of the boat helped me sleep like a baby.

The Galápagos Marine Iguana

Marine iguana

We like to think of the islands as pristine but, in fact, they are recovering. It’s only been the last few decades that has seen serious efforts for the preservation of the Galápagos environment. It was once used by pirates who took huge numbers of land tortoises for meat on their long voyages. They were followed by Spanish colonizers, large contingents of whalers, and as a base for the allies during WW II.

A sea lion nurses its pup

A sea lion nurses its pup

A couple of sally lightfoot crabs face-off

Sally lightfoot crabs face-off

A short-eared owl

Short-eared owl

A Galápagos penguin

Galápagos penguin

Lava gull

Lava gull

Galápagos land iguana

Galápagos land iguana

Green sea turtle

Green sea turtle

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From the mountains to the sea

From the mountains to the sea

After leaving Quito, we headed for Baños, a small town located in the Andean highlands and well-known as a launching pad for numerous adventure activities.

We went white-water rafting on the Pastazas River which were probably class II and III rapids and provided more excitement than I had anticipated. For $20 each, it was easy to compare the Ecuadorean rafting experience with the rafting trip we did in New Zealand. Although we hit a couple of sections containing bigger hydraulics in NZ, they were punctuations in an otherwise placid river. The Pastazas River in Ecuador didn’t have huge hydraulics but it provided non-stop action for almost the entire trip. Notable as well was cost. NZ was over 5 times the price of Ecuador!

I believe our guide was messing with us but we amazingly we didn't flip

This didn’t happen in big water so I think our guide was just messing with us; amazingly we didn’t flip

Zip-lining was another thrill. There were six stations from which to ‘launch’ and for a couple of them we were set up to zip ‘superman-style’ in a horizontal position, head-first with our legs trailing behind in a sling. Since I had never used the camera for movies, I tried unsuccessfully to take one while superman-prone; a reminder to test equipment and functions before you need to use them!

I hope this was tested well

I hope this was tested well

We rode the cable car over Manto de la novio falls

We rode the cable car over Manto de la novio falls

The trip to the small fishing village of Mompiche on the Pacific coast was long and grueling. We got on the first bus at 6am backtracking to Quito. Once there, we caught another bus which crossed a spectacular mountain pass that was so high, the sky got dark as we passed through the clouds. We landed in a horrid stop-over city ironically named “Esmeraldas” (Emeralds) where we waited over an hour to board the final bus to Mompiche. It took a total of about 11 hours and we got there just as night fell. Getting to a destination before dark is always a good strategy.

Also, the trip was not without drama. At some point, we came to a stop and within seconds a guy yelled out, “Mi mochila!” (My backpack!). He came running forward and grabbed his backpack out of the hands of someone who tried to steal it. Fortunately, the thief didn’t get away with the goods and, although I couldn’t see everything, it appeared they held him upfront by the bus entrance for a short while. The woman across the aisle from me was vociferous in wanting the bus employees to call the police but the victim had gone back to his seat in apparent resignation and the thief walked away. Perhaps theft is so common and/or no one wanted to hold up the passengers progress.

The road to Mompiche ends at the beach

The road to Mompiche ends at the beach

Although most people there were friendly, Mompiche was the first place we traveled that I would describe as having a down-beat vibe. They just completed a newly paved road in 2012 and perhaps not all the residents were keen on all the new traffic and visitors. We did, however, find a restaurant on the beach that had the best ceviche of anywhere we ever visited.

Head straight 200 meters for the best ceviche ever! Turn around for a 7km stretch of pristine beach!

Head straight 200 meters for the best ceviche ever! Turn around for a 7km stretch of pristine beach!

We took a tour of the mangroves and commercial shrimp farms, but first…..

Happy island hopping!

Happy island hopping!

A cultural disconnect…?

Exiting Mompiche was the start of what could best be described as a strange chapter in our travels. We were running out of cash and since Mompiche and Canoa (our next destination) did not have an ATM, we had to stop in Pedernales for cash. It would not easy as it would involve several bus transfers. We were describing our situation to the restaurateur at our favorite ceviche haunt and he immediately introduced us to a guy who was heading in our direction and offered us a ride to Pedernales. What great luck! However, two days later at our scheduled meeting time and place, our ride was a no-call and no-show. (I saw this kind of behavior in Colombia, too. I had set up a few Spanish-English language interchange sessions with locals in Medellin, but they were often late or might not even show up. This was consistent with their reputations and could be very frustrating for people who are not accustomed to this way of life.)

By now, it was questionable if we’d make it to Canoa by dark. We hustled to take a taxi to the bus stop at the main road and the driver pulled a trick I hadn’t seen in a while. He explained that the $1 fare he quoted me before we got in was for one person not two and that I owed him another $1. Well, OK, you got me this time.

At the bus stop we met a group of 6 young people who were hitchhiking together. Interestingly, they got a ride in the back of pickup truck before the bus picked us up. (Though, we met up with them in Canoa and found out we arrived at about the same time.) This was getting more interesting.

Just before we hit the town of Chamanga, the Perdanales-bound bus was going out of town while ours was going in, so they both stopped on the fly to exchange passengers. Later, as we pulled into Pedernales, the bursar for a departing Canoa-bound bus was hawking tickets. I explained that I needed to stop at an ATM and he assured me there was one in Canoa. This was against all I read and heard so I confirmed with him at least twice that that was a fact. My gut told me this wasn’t right but we got on anyway and when we got to Canoa I asked where the ATM was located. He pointed in one direction, then the other, and then scurried back on the bus. Spanish was sure coming in handy but in the end there was no ATM and I got smoked anyway.

Canoa

Canoa was another fishing village turned tourist-town, though, larger and with a far more advanced infrastructure for tourism–except for not having an ATM, of course.

This is the last photo I took with the third camera that broke on this trip

This is the last photo I was able to take with the third camera that broke on this trip

Like Mompiche, I found most people in Canoa very friendly but a remarkable number of those who were not so. Perhaps they had enough of outsiders, or perhaps they just didn’t like the changes that had occurred in their town. Someone suggested they didn’t like people who came for a long time and didn’t bother to learn Spanish. I can understand how those things might frustrate some native residents.

Ecuador

Ecuador

From southern Colombia through the center of Ecuador, we rode the Andes mountain range which provided continuous and spectacular scenery on a grand scale.

pastasas river from cable car

At Ipiales, Colombia we took a colectivo to the border of Ecuador and strolled across the frontier right into the quiet and unassuming Ecuadorian migration office. That was probably the easiest and fastest border crossing process we’d experienced throughout the entire journey. After zipping through immigration, we crossed the street and grabbed another colectivo to the town of Tulcan. It seemed to drop us on the street in the middle of a small, nothing-burger town and when I asked the driver how to get to the bus station, all I could understand was to just get on any bus that runs along the street. Instead, I hailed a taxi and we continued along another 1/2 mile or so right to the terminal.

Following our guidebook’s suggestions, I asked for a direct bus with no stops to Quito. I came to find out ‘direct’ means the bus doesn’t go out of its way, and though the window clerk said there would be no stops, there were in fact dozens of stops along to pick up/drop off other passengers, as well as for vendors just like those we experienced in Colombia. The difference being the addition of one or two whose sales pitch were about some health (read: snake-oil-type) product.

Funky trumpet-playing duet entertaining us on a bus

Funky trumpet-playing duet entertaining us on a bus

Safe travels are always a concern. We read numerous warnings about the dangers of traveling through Ecuador, especially on the buses which were notorious for pickpockets and sneak-thieves. Our first destination, Quito, sounded especially dangerous. We already heard a couple of first-hand instances of people being robbed at knife point in Colombia (though, each of the victims admitted they went against their better judgement and were not being careful). So, for the entire 5-hour ride to Quito, we kept our day-packs on our laps the whole way.

We were very busy in the first two days of Quito which were spent looking for last-minute deals for a cruise through the Galapagos Islands. It wasn’t an easy task. It’s an expensive place to visit and according to several travel agents, this year seemed especially busy with people trying to do the same thing as us. It’s always less expensive booking trips from as close to the venue as possible. The alternative was to go directly to the Galapagos. However, it could also mean waiting days for availability on an appropriate cruise. We decided to try to maximize our time touring Quito and Ecuador once we had booked our tour.

Afterwards, we were better able to enjoy touring Quito which sits in a picturesque valley in the Andes.

The Teleferiqo

The TeleferiQo gondola lift goes up Mt. Pichincha volcano and is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world

The Basilica Voto Nacional took over 100 years to build. Instead of gargoyles, it is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and Galapagos turtles.

"Gargoyles"

“Gargoyles”

Quito is not only the capital of Ecuador, but it is also the religious and politically conservative center. It has some of the largest and most elaborate churches and cathedrals in South America.

The incredibly ornate Church of the Company of Jesus

The incredibly ornate Church of the Company of Jesus

The Casa Alabado is a museum dedicated to the documentation and displaying artifacts of pre-Colombian history.

These effigies of ancestors were originally buried up to their waists symbolizing their emergence from the underworld.

Pre-Colombian effigies of ancestors dating 500-1500 B.C.E.

Pre-Colombian effigies of ancestors dating 500-1500 B.C.E.

We visited two other museums as well. The Museum of the City was about the origins of the city of Quito from 10,000 BCE to today, and the Ethnohistorical Museum which held many artisanal products linked to the Indigenous, Mestizo, and Afro-Ecuadorian values.

mindalae indian face